Madonna: Rebel Heart (Boy Toy) When you get past the fact that it is Madonna herself who has created Rebel Heart—Madonna the icon, Madonna the face that launched a thousand ships, Madonna who has faced rabid criticism for decades now and emerged all the stronger—and merely listens, you know what? This is a pretty fine pop record. It isdanceable, topical, predictably provocative but not laughably so, and it sounds good. “Good” meaning clever, well-sung, economical in its delivery, and the equal of nearly everything else out there by similarly popular icon-types. As the songs that populate this 19-track Deluxe Version zoom by, with producers and guests like Kanye West, Avicii, Nas and Nicki Minaj, you hear the word “bitch” a lot, you maybe start thinking that some of the famous people involved here won’t have half as long a creative lifespan as Madonna, and it’s kind of a drag that between getting half this album leaked earlier than she’d intended, and inadvertently falling off a stage, one of the strongest personalities in pop music is now being perceived in some ways as a victim–when, as per usual, she can lick any sonofabitch in the house and often gleefully does.
Will Butler: Policy (Merge) Expectations weren’t high that the first album to be released under the name of the Arcade Fire’s Will–brother of Win–Butler would be extraordinary, and that’s fine, because it isn’t. But it is very good, as it’s loaded with tastefully arranged, clever songs, it exudes personality through and through, it is less deliberately/unavoidably “arty” than real-life Arcade Fire albums, and for once a bio that lists names like both the Violent Femmes and John Lennon isn’t totally stretching it. This is good, energetic stuff–and it doesn’t sound any more like the Arcade Fire than albums by Dave Davies, Geoff Edmunds, Chris Jagger, or Michael McGear sounded like their respective brothers’. There’s a tone and consistency here that’s easy to like and hard to ignore, and you’ll hear it right away.
Various Artists: The Sound Of Music (50th Anniversary Edition) (Sony Legacy) Better than the 45th Anniversary Edition by at least five years, this new, fully gussied-up version of the Sound Of Music soundtrack pretty much represents the peak of restoration frenzy: At the end of the day, you’re left with a whole bunch of extras (remastered, expanded, crammed with photos, etc.) a collection of songs that have wormed their way into the public consciousness for the past half-century (“Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Every Mountain”), and, if you’re a male of a certain age, the uncomfortable realization that album cover star Julie Andrews, who once looked like your mom’s best friend, is looking better than ever, if you get my drift. It’s hard to argue with the timeless quality of the repertoire–as Lady Gaga proved via her recent tattooed Academy Awards tribute–and if this tasteful set re-ignites interest that perhaps has mildly faded over the years, groove on.
The John Coltrane Quintet featuring Eric Dolphy: So Many Things: The European Tour 1961 (Acrobat) While we’re celebrating the anniversary of the filmed version of The Sound Of Music, how about a 4-CD, 55-year-old set by a batch of jazz titans in which that score’s well-known “My Favorite Things” is performed six or maybe seven times, if you want to count the false start, which lasts just a minute? But the other six run-throughs, each a minimum of 20 minutes in length, are wonderful and the sort of thing that no one ever expected to hear all these years later, which is this set’s main attraction. Thanks to the marvels of European copyright law, gathered here are a fabulous mess of fascinating, historic recordings documenting the historic 1961 trek taken by saxophone legend John Coltrane with the equally notable Eric Dolphy. And while the nearly five hours of recordings include only seven songs—done and redone, extended sometimes to the half-hour mark—the sonic variety, overwhelming inspiration, and incredible sense that you are there for these gigs in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and elsewhere, make this anything but an exercise in monotony. Historic, highly recommended, and now legally available. Imagine that.
Gengahr: She’s A Witch (PIAS America) A brief plug for the highly listenable, quite delightful debut EP by the UK’s Gengahr—not to be confused with Gorgo, Godzilla or Ghidrah—which between its title track and the three that follow it, displays a new, youthful combo with a knack for instant pop hooks and surprisingly textured, sophisticated arrangements. High harmonies, chorused vocals, guitar squeals, rhythms that suggest the occasional prance, and an EP cover that suggests a pornographic bath in blue-tinted Mr. Bubble, She’s A Witch is a fab prelude to a full album coming this May. You’ll want to hear that.
Olly Murs: Never Been Better (Columbia) While he hasn’t fully cracked the US marketplace yet, it’s likely this slab of pop-filled tuneage will finally do the trick for Olly Murs. Yet another reality TV singing dude (from the UK’s The X Factor), he has talent, inarguable polish, charisma, and—not incidentally for this marketplace–people like Demi Lovato and Travie McCoy guesting on a pair of tracks. The album entered the British charts at No. 1 last November, and if this thing doesn’t make the Transatlantic leap, nothing will.
Jack DeJohnette: Made In Chicago (ECM) Within the first minute of this captivating live album by drummer Jack DeJohnette, you’re reminded of precisely how versatile he has been through the course of his career. He’s played with greats like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, he’s partaken in some of the finest, most acclaimed gatherings of fusion and straight jazz combos, and he’s even won a Grammy in the Best New Age Album category for his 2007 set Peace Time. Here, he’s heard in yet another fascinating context: marking the 50th anniversary of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) organization with some of its key players, including pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. It’s adventurous, as you’d expect, and a fine showcase for a musical tradition that has now lasted for half a century. A superb live document, oozing with melody, intelligence and technique.
Europe: War Of Kings (Hell & Back Recordings) You can’t help but feel some warmth for longtime Swedish rockers Europe, not just for their name—like Chicago, but bigger—but the incredible moniker of their lead singer, Joey Tempest, which is fascinatingly cartoonesque, the invention of someone for whom English is a second or third language, and lovably dopey. Add to that their monster ‘80s hit “The Final Countdown,” and you’ve got a tradition of earnestness that cannot be denied. Well, it’s 2015, and in the words of Tempest himself, still Joey, not Joseph: “War Of Kings is the album we always wanted to make, ever since we were kids listening to bands like Zeppelin, Purple and Sabbath.” Their logo still looks sharp, their cover art still conceptually impresses, and their music still rocks like a mutha. It’s like no one ever has to grow up!